Aspergers & Teaching Les Mills – A Personal Reflection

It’s been a while since I wrote a group fitness related blog post. But having gone through some recent events and anniversaries, I thought it would be a perfect time to pick up on this again.

Eight years ago this week, I undertook my training to become a BODYJAM instructor (the first of what would eventually become 8 Les Mills programs in which I would train). And the road I’ve travelled on since then has been somewhat rocky in some parts, but overall an experience that has helped me to grow as a person.

When I initially became an instructor, I was extremely overwhelmed and excited to become part of what is commonly referred as “The Tribe”, ie. the collective of Les Mills instructors around the world. A group of people whom I thought to be just like myself, ready to take on the group fitness world. 

And being the passionate person that I was, I was ready to get my hands dirty and get to know everything and everyone Les Mills-related. However I learnt quite quickly that being new and passionate about something does not sit well with certain people in the group fitness industry.

At the time, Aspergers or autism were terms that were not even on my radar, so in my mind I was just this new instructor who was super keen to get out there and make a great impression on people. Looking back, it seems that a lot of those efforts were in vain, as I started to become aware of certain comments being made about me, people overtly making fun of me. I would be aware of myself making numerous social faux-pas but not really being able to do anything about it.

And to be honest, it cut me. It cut me very deeply, and it took a while to even get my head around why other instructors would be going out of their way to be totally cruel and heartless. I was very naive to the world around me, and was under the impression that everyone in the Les Mills world would be like me – enthusiastic, passionate, respectful and kind to each other. Certainly not the kind of behaviour that belonged back in high school.

And not only did this happen in Australia, but also in New Zealand, where I had started to regularly attend the filming sessions for the upcoming release masterclasses. I quickly got to know a lot of the Program Directors and International Presenters, and like any new instructor, was totally in awe of what they could do. But at the same time, I also viewed them as simple human beings, and yearned to get to know them as people too, and they were very warm and welcoming in return.

Unfortunately, around 2010, the general atmosphere in Auckland as far as I was concerned began to change. I had just gone through a sudden personal financial collapse that had resulted in me aborting a filming trip halfway through, and was trying to pick up the pieces from that (it was a long hard struggle, some residual effects I still experience today). That trip had also revealed the true colours of fellow instructors I had previously considered to be friends, and the extent of the nastiness that I and others uncovered on their part was emotionally devastating, on top of all the other feelings I was experiencing from the financial issues.

But what struck me the most was the treatment of some of the Program Directors and presenters towards me. It was as if I had suddenly become a leper. And when you are the Autism Spectrum, you typically will have no idea why people’s attitudes towards you would change on a dime unless they explicitly say something to you, which was the case here.

So to be effectively looked down upon for essentially no reason by people that you admire, and to an extent idolise, was a double blow for me. Some of this escalated even further in 2011 to the point where I was publicly humiliated at a filming class. It led me to exile myself from Auckland for over 4 years.

Back in Australia, the repercussions of that filming class (I personally refer to it as the “Filming From Hell”) continued to be felt for some time. Even a senior Les Mills trainer here felt it necessary to minimise me and the experience that I had had, and by that point I needed to cut myself off from everyone and everything.

So I deleted my Facebook in 2012. Five years worth of stories, of friends, of pictures. All deleted with just a couple of taps. It was a major shock to the system seeing that disappear before my very eyes.

But it gave me the space I needed to start healing emotionally, physically and mentally. Keep in mind that all through this time, I still had to teach all my classes and still be the positive role model that my members needed me to be. At this stage, I had been trained in 5 programs and was teaching 4 of them. At the beginning of 2012, I had also broken two bones in my hands during a BODYSTEP class, the effects of which required invasive surgery to keep the bones together (I still remember the morning after I broke my hand, I went to teach BODYPUMP with no bar – that was an experience I would never forget).

By the end of 2012, I felt ready to come back into the outside world. I got myself certified for BODYPUMP. I created a new Facebook account, and slowly broadened my contacts again. On my previous Facebook account, I had amassed over 1000 friends, mostly instructors from around the world whom I didn’t know from a bar of soap. But this time, it would be different.

I adopted the mindset of being very choosy and picky about the people I added to my Facebook account, and to this day I still maintain that level of caution somewhat. The experiences of the previous 2 years were enough to make me ever so careful about whom I spoke to, whom I could trust, because I knew that everything I would say could be used against me in some way. And that scared the hell out of me.

That period of 2012-2013 was to mark the start of a shift in behaviour with me. I had come to realise since the Filming From Hell that not everything was all roses and sweetness in the Les Mills world. I knew that the programs themselves were awesome and I loved teaching them, but not so much the stuff that operated around it. I was sick of the egos that permeated the industry. 

I made it my sole focus in every class to be there for the members, and the members only. No associating with Les Mills presenters/trainers outside of a professional environment, apart from the ones that were already friends and whom I could trust. No being around people who consistently displayed negative energy and lack of respect for other people. 

In essence, I had to start focusing on myself and my strengths, rather than what other instructors thought of me (and believe me, that took a long time). It completely changed the way that I approached the outside world.

At the start of 2013, I added CXWORX to my program repertoire. I ended up getting certified for SHBAM and CXWORX in the second half of the year. Things were on the up.

2014 was another turning point – it was when my stepfather died and also when I discovered that I had Aspergers. I’ve written about this previously at length, so I won’t go into the details here. I also trained and certified for BODYATTACK that year.

2015 I trained and certified in BODYBALANCE. I also achieved Advanced status in AIM2 for BODYPUMP and BODYSTEP. Again I’ve written at length about those experiences previously in my blog.

And the Autism diagnosis was officially confirmed. The Aspergers knowledge is what really has allowed me to come to terms with a lot of what had happened in my life thus far, but just as importantly, the events of the last 8 years. Just having that knowledge has empowered me to speak out without fear of judgement or repercussion. It has enabled me to stand up for what is right for me and for my loved ones.

The years post-diagnosis in my group fitness career have been challenging in their own way, but for vastly different reasons than elaborated above. I learnt that I will never be able to fulfill the expectations that Les Mills want from an “Elite” instructor, but moreover I realised that I am ok with that. I just go out there now and teach to my strengths, of which I have several. They may not meet Elite criteria, but they nevertheless provide my members the best experience that I can possibly give them.

There are a lot more events over the past 8 years that have occurred in my career to this point, in addition the ones above. There are also more details I could add to a lot of these, but they do not really have much relevance here. This is not intended to be a rant or a bitchfest or a pity party, just an honest and open post of some of what I have experienced and endured.

I have loved what I done for the last 8 years, and I believe that I will continue to love it for a long time to come.

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